The world championship at under-17 level is being hosted by the United Arab Emirates with no air-cooled stadia and with no howls of concern about migrant workers’ rights.
This may not be entirely unconnected with the fact that, among the field of 24 countries, Europe is represented by Austria, Croatia, Italy, Russia, Slovakia and Sweden i.e. FIFA-curious, media-strong nations such as England, France and Germany are all absent.
Abu Dhabi is the tournament capital. It will host the Opening Match and Final and serves as HQ for FIFA and the organisers. Matches are being played both here, up the west coast at Dubai, Sharjah and Ras Al-Khaimah, on the east coast at Fujairah and inland at the oasis city of Al Ain on the border with Saudi Arabia.
Qatar, for reference, is 230 miles due west of Dubai across the Gulf ie on the same latitude and, of course, in the same climate zone.
A 24-team competition means there is no need to stage three matches in a day, as with the ‘grown-up’ 32-team World Cup. Hence games in the UAE between the Opening Match in Abu Dhabi on Thursday (Brazil v Slovakia) and the final there on November 8 are being staged at 5pm and 8pm local time.
The stadia and training camps are not air-cooled but FIFA’s medical commission has raised no objection to the concept of teenage footballers playing at full competitive tilt out in the open Gulf air at this time of year (October/November is one of the options about which Qatar speculation has circled).
This is important to note because FIFA’s medical commission has particular inside knowledge. Chairman Michel D’Hooghe has family living and working in the Gulf and medical boss Jiri Dvorak is a frequent visitor to the region.
The experience, for those players who take part, can be invaluable. Their age group means many will be back, and approaching the peak of their careers, at the World Cup in Qatar 2022.
Not that taking youth tournaments to the Gulf is anything new. Qatar hosted the World (U-20) Youth Cup in 1995 at short notice after Nigeria was dropped as host (Brazil’s winning squad included goalkeeper Claudio Taffarel who was World Cup-winning hero nine years later after the penalty shootout triumph over Italy in Pasadena).
One of FIFA’s central missions is the encouragement and development of football at grassroots (or sand-roots) level across the world and its youth tournaments play a role in both this and in the provision of an international career ladder for outstanding youngsters.
Of course the full panoply of world championships also provides FIFA’s main sponsors with visibility opportunities across the years between World Cups.
The under-17 finals have demonstrated that technically and tactically skilful football is not limited to the old power bases of Europe and South America. Of the 14 tournaments thus far Africa has won five times and Asia once. Of course, Europeans nations have often sent weakened squads because of a conflict of dates with domestic league demands.
Comparisons with prospects for Qatar are limited. Hundreds of thousands of visiting fans are not expected; indeed, even mere thousands of visiting fans are not expected.
Hence the organisers will be handing out tickets free of charge to young people across the Emirates including on a first-come first-served basis at all six host venues on match days.
They will be in at the start of some exceptional careers. Gianluigi Buffon, Iker Casillas, Alex Del Piero, Cesc Fabregas, Neymar and Ronaldinho all rose to glory, fame and fortune from the World Under-17s.
For the cost of a holiday flight, any interested fans might find the experience enlightening . . . to say nothing of the foreign media with Qatar in mind.
Group A: UAE, Honduras, Brazil, Slovakia
Group B: Uruguay, New Zealand, Ivory Coast, Italy
Group C: Croatia, Morocco, Panama, Uzbekistan
Group D: Tunisia, Venezuela, Russia, Japan
Group E: Canada, Austria, Iran, Argentina
Group F: Mexico, Nigeria, Iraq, Sweden
Tournament with 16 nations
1985 (China): Nigeria 2 Germany 0
1987 (Canada): Soviet Union 1 Nigeria 1 (4-2 on pens)
1989 (Scotland): Saudi Arabia 2 Scotland 2 (5-4 on pens)
1991 (Italy): Ghana 1 Spain 0
1993 (Japan): Nigeria 2 Ghana 1
1995 (Ecuador): Ghana 3 Brazil 2
1997 (Egypt): Brazil 2 Ghana 1
1999 (New Zealand): Brazil 0 Australia 0 (8-7 on pens)
2001 (Trinidad & Tobago): France 3 Nigeria 0
2003 (Finland): Brazil 1 Spain 0
2005 (Peru): Mexico 3 Brazil 0
Tournament with 24 nations
2007 (S Korea): Nigeria 0 Spain 0 (3-0 on pens)
2009 (Nigeria): Switzerland 1 Nigeria 0
2011 (Mexico): Mexico 2 Uruguay 0
3: Brazil, Nigeria
2: Ghana, Mexico
1: France, Saudi Arabia, Soviet Union, Switzerland.
** From 1985 to 1993 the tournament was played with 40min each half and extra time of 10min each way. From 1995 the standard 45min (15min) format was introduced. From 2011 extra time was scrapped and any drawn knockout round matches went direct to penalties.